One of the fundamental resources that is essential for the development and sustenance of people in Africa is land.
Land is very important because it forms the basis of agricultural production in the sub-region.
However, it has been very difficult for women to access land in the country, and the continent in general due to multiple issues most of which are embedded on patriarchy as a system which breeds gender inequality.
Society imposes different social roles based on biological differences. The relations between men and women are not always harmonious. They often take the form of male dominance and female subordination. This has often legitimised the exclusion of women from decision-making processes.
Gender relations in Zimbabwe have always been biased against women. Gender is defined as a social construct as opposed to sex which is biological. Male dominance is not only a sexual and social problem but also a political one directed at maintaining existing power relations which subordinate women.
The glaring manifestations of these unequal relations are the failure of women to access basic resources like land, education and participation in politics. In trying to understand women’s access and rights to land, it is important to look into the history and culture of Zimbabwe and other Southern African countries, to have an understanding of what informs prevailing societal norms and values.
Most Southern African countries experienced some historical injustices when land was expropriated from them by the colonial settlers. Upon attainment of democratic rule some of these Southern African countries engaged in land reform to redress the colonial injustices.
The racial and gender inequalities in landholding still persist in most African countries, including those that have undertaken the land reform exercise.
The Zimbabwean Government has made notable strides in addressing gender politics in land ownership in the country, with the Ministry of Lands, Agriculture, Water, Climate and Rural Resettlement in March launching the National and Gender Sensitive Policy for Matabeleland and Midlands provinces in an effort to improve the land governance system.
Government is developing the Gender Sensitive Land Policy in partnership with the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in Zimbabwe.
The formulation of the policy, supported through a Technical Cooperation Programme (TCP) valued at US$400 000, is guided by the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security.
It is encouraging to note that the Ministry of Agriculture recently said Government was compelled to adopt and implement a gender comprehensive and sensitive land policy.
“In light of the significant changes to the ownership structure and production patterns ensuing principally from the fast track land reform, the need to mitigate the effects of climate change, technological advances, and international best practices among others, the Government is compelled to adopt a comprehensive gender sensitive national policy,” it said.
The demand for land had grown exponentially due to agriculture, urbanisation, infrastructure development, mining and energy production.
This pronouncement is long overdue as women in Southern Africa constitute more than 60 percent of small farmers and provide about 75 percent of the workforce in food production and processing.
This therefore means that their access to and rights to land does not only determine their livelihood but food security.
The out-migration of men into urban areas and mining settlements in Southern Africa has led to feminisation of smallholder agriculture.
Women are left in the rural areas engaging in labour intensive, low production and non-commercial domestic work. However, despite the fact that women contribute to the agricultural sector in a very big way, their access and rights to land is always not easy. In Southern Africa, women’s access to land is governed by customary law which gives rights to land to the male head of the family.
Under customary law, land is only given to married men and women have access to that land through their marriage. It is allocated by traditional authorities who are male and endeavour to protect men’s rights and access to land. Thus, men enjoy the usufruct to land.
Most Southern African societies have a patrilineal system in which land tenure is most frequently in the hands of males and generally the eldest son or uncle inherits title to land. It is only in exceptional cases, if there is no husband’s brother or son to inherit the land, that we find widows inheriting title to land, provided they remain in the family and had children with the deceased husband.
The gender approach to development advocates for the lessening of social inequalities between men and women. Gender as a policy criterion has been found to reduce poverty, raise farm efficiency and improve natural resources. It also emphasises participatory approaches as a tool to empower women through their articulation of their needs, rights and capabilities.
Communities should be encouraged to embrace the gender approach when focusing on development issues in rural areas and in land reform. Once women are empowered and have the social and economic resources, the quality of life of their households improves.
If women contribute so much to the social well-being of families in particular, and communities in general, it is necessary for policymakers to develop policies that enable communities to improve women’s access to resources. The gender approach to development can also be used in the whole land reform process.
There has been well documented feminisation of poverty in development literature. Female-headed households have been found to be poorer than male-headed households. They also have less labour resources and fewer assets.
Zimbabwe is no exception and the majority of female-headed households are amongst the poorest of the poor. This is because women have limited access to and control of resources such as land and other crucial resource bases in society. In areas where women may have access to and control of resources like land, they tend to realise limited benefits from them.
According to the Human Development Report of 1998, most women in rural Zimbabwe had access to land but they had limited benefits from the products of that land.
There were many harvest suicides in Gokwe in 1997 where 153 women committed suicide because their husbands had squandered the money from the proceeds of the land. This demonstrates that women are left out in deciding on what to do with the money they had earned from their labour on the land.
The laws that have been passed in trying to better women’s status are not being enforced partly because the decision makers and implementers are males who want to jealously guard their patriarchal hegemony in land allocation and redistribution.
The status quo also tends to hold sway because some women have internalised and accepted patriarchal leadership and believe that it is only men who should have rights to land. At the same time, the countries that have embarked on the land reform exercise have not accommodated women despite having crafted gender-sensitive legislation. – @andile_tshuma